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Earth Day at Sequoia and Kings National Parks

Sequoia Tree at Sequoia & Kings Canyon National Parks, California
Sequoia Tree at Sequoia & Kings Canyon National Parks, California

Hiking and camping at Sequoia and Kings National Parks in California was on my itinerary. And what a coincidence that I happened to reach the area on the first day the park was opening for visitors in the Spring. It had been a long Winter and some of the roads were not clear of the snow yet. My thoughts of camping were erased when I arrived at the gates and was informed that camping was not allowed yet, and another big storm was on its way.

No better way to celebrate Earth Day than hugging a Sequoia! Well, a small one! On April 22, 1970, twenty million Americans took to the streets, parks and auditoriums to demonstrate and rally for a healthy, sustainable environment. Forty-six years later, on April 22, 2016, in my own way I was honoring this special day which was founded by Gaylord Nelson who at that time was a senator for Wisconsin. And no, I did not plan all along to be there on that particular day, but after twenty-six days on the road that’s how far I had made. Nonetheless, it was a remarkable coincidence.

Sequoia Tree at Sequoia & Kings Canyon National Parks, California
Sequoia Tree at Sequoia & Kings Canyon National Parks, California

I was expecting a long line at the entrance of the park, after all, I assumed that schools would bring busloads of children to celebrate Earth Day. I was wrong! Being the first day that the park was open for the season and with what had been an unstable weather pattern, the crowds weren’t there.  I quickly learned how unstable the weather is in early Spring at the Sierra Nevada and at the Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks. Although in the early morning the skies were blue and there was no visible sign of a major storm, all I heard were warnings about a big storm rolling in.

The park was relatively quiet not only for being the first day it had open, but because a big storm a couple of days earlier was keeping people away. When I checked about the possibility of camping, the answer was not encouraging. I could find camping outside the park but I was warned that a storm was expected later that evening and the park rangers weren’t sure if the roads would be open the next morning or not. I was also told that if it was a really bad storm they could not tell me for sure how long it would be before clearing the roads and reopening them.

The hiking trail conditions were not great either and hiking solo was not recommended either. Except for short hikes closer to the landmarks at the park, venturing out on my own was not a good idea. Safety first! By mid-day it looked unseemly that a storm would roll in. It was a sunny, gorgeous day. What could go wrong? I could not resist the temptation to drive further in the park. The views were stunning and I did see a couple of hikers who seemed determined to find a camping spot. I thought that maybe I would find a camping area and pitch my tent.

Signs of Spring along the Kings Canyon Scenic Byway and the South Fork Kings River, Sequoia National Forest, California Signs of Spring along the Kings Canyon Scenic Byway and the South Fork Kings River, Sequoia National Forest, California

Grizzly Falls at Sequoia National Forest, California
Grizzly Falls at Sequoia National Forest, California

Earlier that morning before the roads were opened for traffic because of lack of visibility earlier in the morning, I toured the sequoias landmarks. Although it was still a bit cold, the sun was out and it was a spectacular day. Blue, clear skies made it hard to believe in the warnings that I was given about lack of visibility and a possible snow storm overnight.

With all campgrounds still closed I stayed on the Kings Canyon Scenic Byway which for most part runs along the South Fork Kings River, stopping at the Grizzly Falls. In this section the of the road there wasn’t any traffic at all. The few visitors I had seen seemed to have stayed behind by the visitor center and places such as the General Grant Tree posing for pictures. With just a half dozen cars on the road, I could enjoy the open views, stopping at most of the viewpoints. Astonishing views! All to myself and a few bears.

Although it felt like Winter, a few blossoming shrubs here and there was a reminder that Spring was finally arriving. Along the road where wildfires cleared the slopes, the meadows were carpeted with yellow, orange, and purple flowers.

Kings Canyon Scenic Byway, Kings Canyon National Park
Kings Canyon Scenic Byway, Kings Canyon National Park

 

Canyon view at the Kings Canyon Scenic Byway, Kings Canyon
Canyon view at the Kings Canyon Scenic Byway, Kings Canyon

 

Grand Sentinel
Grand Sentinel
Roaring River Falls at Kings Canyon National Park
Roaring River Falls at Kings Canyon National Park

By the time I reached the end of the road and ventured on the Copper Creek Trail, the temperature had dropped drastically. Hiking along the creek was bitterly cold.

The view of the Grand Sentinel rising 8518 feet is impressive; sitting as the background image at the Zumwalt Meadow. Hiking out on the Copper Creek Trail and heading to the Roaring River Falls, I noticed that I could no longer see the summit of the Grand Sentinel which had been covered by clouds. The sun quickly withdrew and the temperature was dropping quickly.

I would not pass the opportunity to hike to the Roaring River Falls, where I finally saw other people. The person who I spoke with was a local who had brought some visiting family members to the park. He told me that we should get out of there as soon as possible because within some thirty minutes there would be no visibility at all. I am glad I bumped into him because by the time I drove by the Canyon Viewpoint there was no view at sight. Driving conditions deteriorated so rapidly due to lack of visibility that I considered stopping! But, where to stop? What if this continues for the next 12 hours or so? I imagined that as I would reach lower altitudes it would get better. Somehow it did, but not exactly how I expected.

Around the time I made to the Convict Flat, a campground that was closed, it wasn’t as foggy as it had been up to that point. However, sleet combined with rain and snow made it for an interesting mix to navigate the meandering road. Once again I hoped that the lower I went the better would get. Different altitudes, different weathers! I left the Sequoia National Forest thinking that things were getting better when suddenly they turned into the worst drive I had ever experienced. I only let a sigh of relief when I reached the 2000 feet mark. From there I could see the plains and although it was raining heavily, I was happy to be down from the mountains. Lesson learned! When a ranger tells you that their weather is as temperamental as a cat, trust him!

Roaring River at Zumwalt Meadow, Kings Canyon National Park
Roaring River at Zumwalt Meadow, Kings Canyon National Park

My plans and dream to spend time at Sequoia and Kings National Parks, camping and hiking for now had to be postponed. However, the experience was just as fantastic as if I had spent a week there. It was a teaser that only made me want to come back another time. A long road trip is fascinating. However, the downside is not being able to make reservations for camping because it is difficult to reach the locations on schedule. Many of the national parks I visited were stopovers. In some of the national parks that were open and operated on a first-come, first-serve basis for camping, I could spend a couple of days or so. It was getting a little more difficult as I continued north in West Coast. Although it was officially Spring, the heavy Winter was still lingering around. After all, the weather in Sierra Nevada and in the northeast mountains of California is quite unpredictable.

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Desert Storm

Joshua Tree, "the tree of life" - Joshua Tree National Park, California
Joshua Tree, “the tree of life” – Joshua Tree National Park, California

Driving through the desert southbound to Joshua Tree National Park the high winds in Las Vegas were explained. The sand storm could be seen in the distance becoming more and more intense the further south I drove. Traffic was very light, for miles practically nonexistent. At times the wind gusts would shake the car underscoring my driving inexperience in desert sand storms. I wondered whether or not it was a normal occurrence or an anomaly. One thing was certain; it made the trip undeniably stressful. The route took me through the Mojave National Preserve passing through Cima and Kelso. The latter,a ghost town and a defunct railroad depot in the San Bernardino County. The views are both stunning, dramatic and desolate in an environment that seems to have sat still in time! Crumbling structures being consumed in abandonment dot the roadside landscape. The Kelso Dunes, the largest sand dunes in the United States, is one of the landmark attractions in the Mojave National Preserve giving visitors ample opportunities for self-reliant and challenging outdoor activities. Certainly one more for my bucket list.

Mohave Desert - Joshua Tree National Park, California
Mohave Desert – Joshua Tree National Park, California

South of the Mojave National Preserve, on the historic Route 66 with a population of roughly 2,000 people, Amboy was probably where I should have taken a rest break and I didn’t. I probably continued to drive both because I wanted to get to Joshua Tree National Park as early as possible and because in all honesty, Amboy has that dreadful ghost town feel. As a matter of fact, it is advertised as the “the ghost town that ain’t dead yet”! Throughout my road trip my primary goal was to visit and hike at National Parks, but I kept a journal of scenery and towns that I saw along the way. They are places that caught my eye, imagination and curiosity; Amboy is one of them and falls on list of places to visit. However, the reason I should have stopped there is because it was the last sign of civilization that I came across until I was close to get in the north entrance of Joshua Tree National Park. At the first gas station, one of those that have only two pumps, westbound on Route 62, I stopped to get gas and use their facilities. The wind was blasting so strongly that it kept pushing my body against the car while I filled up the tank. A a couple of minutes later and inside chatting with the attendant, she told me that it was one of the worst sand storms they were having so far this year. Lucky me, I thought, not yet knowing what that meant for my plans for the day.

The Skull Rock granite formation - Joshua Tree National Park, California
The Skull Rock granite formation – Joshua Tree National Park, California

At the Joshua Tree National Park visitor center, I learned that Indian Cave, Ryan, Belle, and Jumbo Rock campgrounds were all full. The suggestion given to me was to drive to Cottonwood Campground about over an hour drive, which meant crossing the park in the north-south direction toward the south entrance by highway I-10. Knowing that camping at the park was close to impossible at that point, I decided to enjoy the day as much I could doing a short hike instead. I headed to Skull Rock, the iconic granite rock formation with the two eye sockets that resemble a skull.

Radiant fuchsia cactus blossoms - Joshua Tree National Park, California
Radiant fuchsia cactus blossoms – Joshua Tree National Park, California

The Skull Rock & Jumbo Rocks Trail was a good short hike for the day given the fact that the terrain is basically solid granite rocks and there was not a lot of sand being blown in the air despite strong winds. In a not too far distance clouds of sand could be seen rolling south of the Skull Rock site.

Granite jumbo rocks at Joshua Tree National Park, California
Granite jumbo rocks at Joshua Tree National Park, California
Inherently part of the ecosystem of the Joshua Tree National Park - Mojave Desert, Catilornia
Inherently part of the Joshua Tree National Park’s ecosystem – Mojave Desert, Catilornia

This trail is a two miles loop with an elevation gain of only 108 feet with a moderate degree of difficulty. The scenery is breathtaking! The terrain is rugged with a few jagged sections. However, contrary to the popular idea of a desert landscape, it is far from being barren. Astounding radiant fuchsia cactus blossoms standout along the way, contrasting with the pale sandy soil. Life springs out of small crevices in the rocks and bloom with intensity in a delicate and fragile ecosystem where every single element, no matter how small, plays a critical role the entire system and cycle of life.

Jumbo granite rocks in the nature trails of Joshua Tree National Park, California
Jumbo granite rocks in the nature trails of Joshua Tree National Park, California
Joshua Tree National Park, California
Joshua Tree National Park, California

On my way to the south entrance of the park I made a few stops along the way at the exhibits, which are plaques describing the nature of the landscape and formations. The closer I got to the south entrance of the park, the windier and dustier it became. Without a tripod I could barely hold still to photograph the scenery around me. The amount of sand swirling around was insurmountable. It was then that I realized that even if there were campsites available at the Cottonwood Campground, I probably would not be able to pitch my tent as the force of the wind was such that it shook the car even when it was parked on the road side.

Since I had planned to spend a couple of days at the Joshua Tree National Park, by not doing so I was sort of ahead of schedule. Although I did not have a schedule, properly said, I had arranged to arrive in the San Diego area in two days. Basically I was heading out of the park without a plan, other than knowing that if I headed toward San Clemente there were a few State Parks on the shores where I could try and camp for the night.

Jumbo Rocks - Joshua Tree National Park, California
Jumbo Rocks – Joshua Tree National Park, California

Crater Lake: Winter Wonderland and Beyond

 

From the Shores to the Mountains

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South Kaibab Trail – Grand Canyon

South Kaibab Trail - Grand Canyon, Arizona
South Kaibab Trail – Grand Canyon, Arizona

On my sixteenth day on the road I woke up to a cold morning and so sore that it took me a few minutes to get out of the sleeping bag. My legs begged me to stay in the tent, but my addiction to caffeine got me up and running for a hot cup of cappuccino at the Canyon Coffee House. With my abilities to think and function restored, I was ready to head to the South Kaibab Trail. Vehicles are not allowed close to the trailhead and the closest parking lot is about a half mile away on Desert View Drive. Shuttle buses are available to drop you off right at the trailhead located south of the Yaki Point on Yaki Point Road, but I chose to drive, park and hike to the trailhead. At busier times of the year or if you are camping overnight in the canyon the shuttle bus is probably a better option as the parking lot is quite small. And not everyone wants to hike an extra half mile on the way out.

View of canyon walls from South Kaibab Trail - Grand Canyon, Arizona
View of canyon walls from South Kaibab Trail – Grand Canyon, Arizona

I had planned to hike to Skeleton Point at three miles down toward the bottom. My round trip for the day was just going to be six miles, plus the one mile round trip from the trailhead to where I had parked my car. The South Kaibab Trail is two and half miles shorter than the Bright Angel Trail from the trailheads to the Bright Angel Campground by the Colorado River. While the Bright Angel Trail round trip is nineteen miles, the round trip on the South Kaibab Trail is only fourteen miles. Do not fool yourself! Part of the reason for the shorter distance is because of its steepness. The steepness of this trail is misleading as many casual hikers do not realize how far they have gone. Its trailhead elevation is also about 400 feet higher than that at the trailhead of the Bright Angel Trail.

Ooh Aah Point at South Kaibab Trail - Grand Canyon, Arizona
Ooh Aah Point at South Kaibab Trail – Grand Canyon, Arizona

Comparing to the Bright Angel Trail, the South Kaibab Trail gets a lot more exposure to sunlight. The few shaded areas, depending on the time of the day, result from the canyon walls. The views are spectacular! Just about less than a mile in from the trailhead, Ooh Aah Point offers wonderful views of the open canyon. The weather was perfect! The day before when I hiked part of the Bright Angel Trail, the skies were a too little hazy but today the skies were clear and bluer. At the Ooh Aah Point I met Nav and Martina from London with whom I chatted for a while and we agreed to meet in San Diego a week later for drinks. Although there were more people on the trail, it was not overly crowded.

Just a little over half a mile from Ooh Aah Point, Cedar Ridge opens up to astonishing views. At this point it was windy but not as cold as the day before and certainly a lot warmer than just a couple of hours earlier. That’s how much the temperature can vary from top to bottom and fluctuate throughout the day.

Cedar Ridge at South Kaibab Trail - Grand Canyon, Arizona
Cedar Ridge at South Kaibab Trail – Grand Canyon, Arizona

Hiking and contemplating the vastness of the Grand Canyon is a spiritual experience and it is impossible not to be moved by the force that carved the landscape and magnitude of its wild beauty. Although the landscape is relatively young, sculpted about five to six million years ago, rocks ages reveal 270 to 1,840 million years in the making: 1.8 billion years. Later that evening I met Michael, a Hopi native-American who shared some of his people’s rich history and their fascinating mythology. He told me that now they are a small nation but the “most important” because they are the oldest and that they originated from mother Earth. Curious about what I heard, later on I looked into the history of the Hopi people and found out that among the people who consider the Grand Canyon their place of origin and homeland, the Hopi are the only people who never left the area. Their religious practices are embedded in the landscape given to them by the deity Ma’saw when they accepted a covenant to earn stewardship of the Earth. It is believed that the Hopi people descend from the Puebloan tribes who inhabited the four corners area thousands of years ago. Deep within the Grand Canyon lies a sacred place: the Sipapu, which means “the place of emergence”. The Hopi people remains the most mysterious and mystical people of all Native Americans, considered outsiders by other Native American nations as they never signed a peace treaty. They carry on the story and the history of the Ancestral Puebloans.

South Kaibab Trail - Grand Canyon, Arizona
South Kaibab Trail – Grand Canyon, Arizona
South Kaibab Trail - Grand Canyon, Arizona
South Kaibab Trail – Grand Canyon, Arizona

Michael and I talked well into the night while stargazing, sitting outside my tent. Listening to his stories and how after leaving the US Marines and becoming a Forestry Engineer he returned to his homeland to continue and carry on the Hopi’s traditions and cultural integrity, was an eye-opening experience. That encounter changed how I would view my journey from that moment on; it was no longer a sightseeing road trip. Thereafter, I gained the awareness that I was walking on sacred grounds and the connecting with people took a deeper meaning knowing that although I was travelling by myself I was not alone.

Sunset in the Grand Canyon, Arizona
Sunset in the Grand Canyon, Arizona
Sunset in the Grand Canyon, Arizona
Sunset in the Grand Canyon, Arizona
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Bright Angel Trail – Grand Canyon

Descending hike on the Bright Angel Trail view from the Upper Tunnel - Grand
Descending hike on the Bright Angel Trail view from the Upper Tunnel area – Grand Canyon, Arizona

I started the descent on the Bright Angel Trail about seven hours from sunset. I calculated that I would do an average twenty-five minutes per mile on the descending hike, but would probably double that time on the ascending hike. If I hiked down to the three miles point I would need approximately four hours to complete my round trip; that would not account for rest stops and stopping for pictures. Based on the Hiking and Camping Destinations pamphlet listing the trails, with the time I had for a day hike I could reach the 3-Mile Resthouse. The Resthouse, located three miles on the descent sitting at the 2120 feet elevation change from the top, has a round trip of six miles with an estimated time of four to six hours.

On the descent at Bright Angel Trail - Grand Canyon, Arizona
On the descent at Bright Angel Trail – Grand Canyon, Arizona
View from the Bright Angel Trail - Grand Canyon, Arizona
View from the Bright Angel Trail – Grand Canyon, Arizona

The Bright Angel Campground elevation change from the trailhead is 4340 feet with a nineteen miles round trip. The minimum time recommended for the round trip is two days. Warning signs highlight that people who have attempted the round trip in one day have experienced health related accidents or have died. As it was early Spring, the average temperatures at the top were in the low 30 F degrees, rising at lower altitudes toward the river. Temperatures at the river level average about twenty degrees higher than at the top. About two miles into my hike it became very windy which made it feel colder than the actual 40 F degrees at that point. One of the brochures notes that the Bright Angel Trail is the “easiest” trail, “but still incredibly steep.” The sudden drop in altitude is felt at each step taken, which makes for a faster hike down with high impact on the joints. Hiking poles are essential here! Hiking out will take twice as long or longer as the gain in altitude makes it steadily steep.

Bright Angel Trail - Grand Canyon, Arizona
Bright Angel Trail – Grand Canyon, Arizona

Captivating views, a relatively ease and surely fast descent mislead those who are not exactly what would be called experienced hikers, but tourists turned into accidental hikers who go too far down in the hike not realizing how much physical preparedness is required on the way out. ‘Far’ in this case is an absolute relative concept! Five hundred feet can be treacherous and challenging to too many people I passed on my way down. Posted warning signs and advises on pamphlets are not to be taken lightly nor ignored. In a jokingly way, the challenge of the trails in the Grand Canyon is well summarized on a t-shirt for sale at the gift shop which reads “Going In Is Optional; Coming Out is Mandatory”, or something along those lines. As I continued to descend I saw pain stamped on some faces and at the same time I saw guilt written on the faces of those who brought their elderly parents and grandparents down for a stroll. That’s what the viewpoints are for!

About half a mile down the trail became at least half crowded and by the time I reached the one mile mark I had the trail almost entirely to myself. It was also at that point that the wind was blasting against the cliff walls. Blowing gusts forced me to make some stops and exercise added caution as the wind was blowing and pushing against my back. I went an extra mile down from the 3-Mile Resthouse as I averaged about twenty minutes per mile taking one hour and twenty minutes on the four miles descent. Rested, I turned around to ascend as the sun was still high at three o’clock. I could comfortably reach the top in four hours or so enjoying the sunset and the landscape changing colors as a rosy sun lit the rocky formations in different angles.

Sunset at the Bright Angel Trail - Grand Canyon, Arizona
Sunset at the Bright Angel Trail – Grand Canyon, Arizona

The point where I decided to turn around was more or less between the 3-Mile Resthouse and the Indian Garden Campground and with calm winds it felt comfortable at 45 F degrees. By the time I climbed about two miles, the temperature continued to drop every hundred feet; or so it felt! As the sun continued to set by the time I reached the Lower Tunnel it was 27 F degrees, about five degrees below the low averages for season. Because of the low temperatures even as I got closer to the trailhead at the top, I still had the trail almost exclusively to myself. There was not more than a dozen people watching the sunset. The Spring and Fall provide the most comfortable hiking experience, as I learned from talking to the Grand Canyon National Park Service rangers and other hikers, although the temperature can vary dramatically. However, after some of them described how beautiful the canyon is in the Winter, I convinced myself to plan hiking to the Bright Angel Campground by the Colorado River in the Winter time. And I can’t wait ’til I hit the trail again!

Bitterly cold sunset at the Bright Angel Trail - Grand Canyon, Arizona
Bitterly cold sunset at the Bright Angel Trail – Grand Canyon, Arizona
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Grand Canyon South Rim

When I left Sedona, Arizona it was already too late in the day to try and arrive at the Grand Canyon National Park without a reservation for a camp site. As the north rim does not open until later in May, my plans were to visit the south rim and a few weeks later swing by the north rim. I was also fully aware that trying to get a camp site at the park was slim to none, but if I did arrive early in the morning maybe I would be lucky enough to land a spot in one of the campgrounds. So, that night I sought to stay close enough to the east entrance of the Grand Canyon to arrive the next morning as early as possible.

The Colorado River seen from the Desert View Watchtower - Grand Canyon South Rim - Arizona
The Colorado River seen from the Desert View Watchtower – Grand Canyon South Rim – Arizona

The following morning I arrived at the east entrance gate of the Grand Canyon National Park south rim and I was greeted by one of the most cheerful National Park Service rangers I had met to date. As I handed my driver’s license to her, she said “Oh! So you have been hiking in the Grand Canyon of the East?” No! – I replied, adding that I never heard of a Grand Canyon of the East. She recommended that as I returned to New York to check it out. It is located thirty-five miles southwest of Rochester, New York in the Letchworth State Park; proving that often we don’t know what is in our own backyard. Well, one more for the bucket list! When I asked her about the possibility of camping at the park, she replied that the Desert View Campground was already full and she had heard that the Mather Campground was also sold out but she could not confirm that information. Instead, she advised me to drive to  the campground which is located in the Grand Canyon Village. The Village, as it is commonly referred to, is located twenty-five miles from the east entrance of the park and it would take me more than half an hour to get there.

Desert View Watchtower - Grand Canyon South Rim, Arizona
Desert View Watchtower – Grand Canyon South Rim, Arizona

Although I was anxious to get there and find out whether or not I would be able to stay for at least a couple of nights, the ranger at the gate suggested that I first stopped by the Desert View Watchtower, which according to her is one of the most fascinating and breathtaking views in the Grand Canyon. Otherwise, she alerted me, “you will have to drive back twenty-five miles to see this astonishing view.” I said that I could always see it on my way back out of the park. Again, she pointed out that it may be raining on my way out of the park a couple of days later. She really wanted me to stop at the Desert View Watchtower! Despite my urgency to get to the Mather Campground to find out my fate for the night, I followed her ‘persistent’ advise. And I am glad I did! The view is indeed so incredibly beautiful and powerful that I almost forgot I was in a hurry to get somewhere.

Seen from the Desert View Watchtower - Grand Canyon South Rim, Arizona
Seen from the Desert View Watchtower – Grand Canyon South Rim, Arizona

 

Desert View Watchtower - Grand Canyon South Rim, Arizona
Camping at the Mather Campground – Grand Canyon South Rim, Arizona

Arriving at the Mather Campground I got the good news that I could have a camp site for two nights. I was thrilled! It was still mid morning and I could set up my tent, get a bite at the Grand Canyon Village, and pick a hiking trail for the day. It was great to get a good cappuccino at the Canyon Coffee House, sit down and download some pictures, recharge my phone and camera at the lounge of the Bright Angel Lodge. After considering the time left until sunset; the fact that I was a little sore from hiking the day before; and knowing that my choice for the day, the Bright Angel Trail, is quite difficult going down and even more strenuous going up; I knew that I could not go down more than three, maybe four miles. What I was planning was to still be on the trail at sunset and enjoy what I expected to be an unforgettable hiking experience.

Munds Wagon Trail

 

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Hiking the White Sands in New Mexico

White Sands National Monument - New Mexico
White Sands National Monument – New Mexico

I walked in at the White Sands National Monument‘s visitor center with many questions and high expectations about hiking the dunes. But, just how white is the White Sands when everything else around has a terracotta color? Just to make sure, I implied that I knew that camping is not available at the monument in a inquiring manner. It’s one of those comments that I make when deep inside I’m hopeful that I’m wrong. Not this time! All I had read about the monument was right. No camping! Hiking! Oh, yes!

I knew that this was a one day visit and I wanted to hike the longest trail in the park. The park ranger I spoke with couldn’t have been friendlier and more helpful. Perhaps, however, my appearance suggested that I should or could  not go hiking the longest trail. She first tried to tell me that there are nice, short trails. But after I told her about my trip and my goals she agreed that the longest trail would be more enjoyable and suitable to my purposes.  “There will be less people in that hiking trail and the dunes are much higher” – she noted.

Alkali Flat Trail - White Sands National Monument, New Mexico
Alkali Flat Trail – White Sands National Monument, New Mexico

As I drove the two miles to the trailhead, I overshot it because I was looking for the promised quieter area with not many people and dogs around. Enchanted by the surroundings I just kept on driving until I realized that I had arrived at the end of the road. I turned around, this time paying attention to the hiking trails signage along the way.

On the Alkali Flat Trail at the White Sands National Monument - Alamogordo, New Mexico
On the Alkali Flat Trail at the White Sands National Monument – Alamogordo, New Mexico

Frankly, I was discouraged when I found the location because I could barely find a spot to park the car. A larger crowd than I expected covered the sand surrounding the first 100 yards from the trailhead. It looked like a playground where dogs were having a great time. But, as it is the case with most hiking trails, after half a mile into the hike the number of hikers drop drastically.

Alkali Flat Trail at White Sands National Monument, New Mexico
Alkali Flat Trail at White Sands National Monument, New Mexico

I was also a little intrigued when she told me that the dunes would be much higher on this trail, reaching 60 or 70 feet high. Lots of ups and downs, but the name of the trail was Alkali Flat Trail. Just to be sure, know that the only thing flat in this trail is the word “flat” on its name. Be prepared for a great hiking!

As I hiked the first quarter of a mile and went up and down a few dunes, suddenly I was all by myself! I almost broke down in tears overwhelmed by the beauty around. I had not felt that way in a long, long time. Not at least while hiking. What I like about hiking dunes, especially when they are white dunes, is that you can look at or take several pictures of the same frame and they will always look different. Shades and shadows continuously changing the landscape around can be mesmerizing. Depending on how the clouds cover the sun, and the density and speed of the clouds, the scenery scintillates and flashes before your eyes creating a spectacular light show. No, it’s not boring! Someone asked me once if I didn’t get bored by “walking on sand” for miles and miles. No, I do not get bored!

White Sands National Monument - Alamogordo, New Mexico
White Sands National Monument – Alamogordo, New Mexico

There was a chance of rain for that afternoon. I made sure I had the appropriate hiking gear which included a water proof hiking jacket. I particularly like having my hiking poles with me at all time, and this is a trail that requires hiking poles if you set yourself up to hike the five miles loop.

Except for a few moments during which the clouds got a little thicker and darker, the weather was excellent and the rain never came. For at least four and a half miles I hiked in complete solitude, only seeing a few people when I was close to finishing the five miles loop.

Alkali Flat Trail loop - White Sands National Monument - Alamogordo, New Mexico
Alkali Flat Trail loop – White Sands National Monument – Alamogordo, New Mexico

The White Sands National Monument offers other activities which include guided full moon walk, among other events. If you plan a visit I would recommend checking their website for scheduled events. Most likely I will plan a return trip to coincide with a full moon cycle. Many years ago I did a similar hike in the company of a small group guided by a ranger at midnight in a rain forest at the Iguazu Falls in Argentina and it was a spectacular experience. I imagine that the White Sands is equally, Although in a completely different environment and ecosystem, I imagine that the White Sands is an extraordinary location for hiking under a full moon light.

 

The Questioning!

 

Destination: From Texas to New Mexico

 

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Destination: From Texas to New Mexico

Traveling is more about what happens on the road than it is about reaching the destination. That’s what makes a road trip more exciting to me. It’s what I see and who I meet on the way to a destination that feed my curiosity; becoming a learning experience and a journey of discoveries. A road trip takes away the comfort zone of getting on an airplane, reaching the destination, hopping on a cab, and checking-in to a hotel before visiting a landmark. The morning I started out in Texas on the way to New Mexico, I expected it to be a smooth road trip. According to the GPS, it would take 9 hours and 8 minutes to cover the 582 miles!

In a road trip it means that the restroom is not a few feet away from your airplane seat, and you don’t know if the next rest area will actually be open or closed for construction. Confronting the unknown is what drives me to take the road with an open mind. Reaching the destination sometimes becomes an obsession when a hurricane is approaching. Other times, if time is not an issue, reaching the destination becomes secondary because even that destination could change; as it has many times in this road trip.

I left Dallas around ten in the morning. It was a beautiful sunny day with clear blue skies. The vibrant yellow and purple colors of Spring peppered the road sides in Texas. All appeared to be going very well until just about an hour on the road I came across the first slowdown caused by road construction. Soon I after that first few miles of one lane slow moving traffic, it did not take long for a second, then a third, and a fourth road construction zone. It did not take long before I stopped counting them. Driving through a mostly unpopulated area I spotted a sign for a rest area. At that point that would have been a much needed stop. Unfortunately, to my dismay when I approached the rest area a sign indicated that it was closed for construction: the next rest area would be eighty miles away!

At dusk on the seventh day of April, I was still about three hours from Alamogordo, New Mexico. By then I had seen immense wind farms and smelled the oil horses and the flaring stacks dotting the landscape for miles and miles in Texas and New Mexico. I watched the sun setting in the desert heading west on US-82. The most scenic portion of the road would have been through the Lincoln National Forest, a mountainous area where the 9,260 feet high Alamo Peak stands, if I could have seen it. I was out of luck! I was exhausted and still not a rest area in sight. Besides, I couldn’t see a thing! After sunset the skies became pitch-black and the road went from a straight line in the desert to a meandering path up and down through the mountains. There was no one else on the road but a slow truck which I followed for miles. There is no signage on the roadside that signals an upcoming curve, as it is common in most roads in the mountains elsewhere. After the “leading” truck’s taillights in front of me left the road, I had to rely on the imagery of the GPS to know that I was entering a right or left curve. I knew then that I had no other choice but make it through to the destination, if I only could keep my eyes open!

Being so tired by the time I arrived in Alamogordo, I didn’t realize that I had set my GPS to take me to the White Sands National Monument, located 16 miles southwest of Alamogordo. When I realized the mistake I had made, I drove up to the next U-turn on US-70 W to turn around and head back east to find a hotel in town for the night. All of a sudden the speed limit signs became more and more frequent, dropping the speed limit all the way down to 10 MPH. And the surprise! I had come to a border patrol check point. I got so confused because I knew that Alamogordo was over 80 miles north of the Mexican border, but being tired and having had no service when I was driving through the mountains a couple of hours earlier, I thought I might have been rerouted.

A border patrol officer approached my window inquiring about my citizenship and immigration status and asked for my immigration papers. It never occurred to me that I would need them since I was travelling within the continental United States’ borders. I told him that they were in a briefcase in the trunk of the car. He said that it was okay and he did not have to see them. I asked him just out of curiosity, if I had crossed into Mexico? “No”, he replied. I was happy to know that I was not lost, but his answer further confused me.

As I was checking-in to the hotel, I asked the front desk agent why did they have a border patrol check point there since it is located miles away from the border? He explained to me that there are several of those check points in New Mexico and Arizona that he knew of. He went on to explain that the reason is because of drug-trafficking by the Mexican cartels. He continued on explaining the geography of the area and problem of drugs coming from Ciudad Juarez in Mexico through Las Cruces in New Mexico.

I had never been on a road trip in the Southwest before; although it was a travel destination in more than one occasion in the past. The difference is that I had flown when I visited a few times before. If I flew in again this time, I probably would not have seen all the police activity on the streets of Alamogordo. Was it being a drug trafficking hot spot the reason why there was no one else driving on the roads after sunset? Or, was it just a coincidence? Perhaps no one will answer that question, but I know that whenever traveling near the border in the Southwest in the future, I probably will stick to driving during the day. What I imagined to be a long, boring drive from Dallas, Texas to Alamogordo, New Mexico, turned out to be about an eleven hours adrenaline filled journey. I had enough for one day and it was time to rest for the night.

It’s Better Outside

The Questioning!